In a novel, you can learn about characters by getting into their thoughts. You can’t do that in a movie, which is why some novels translate poorly into film.
To reveal characters in a movie, you have to rely on a handful of visual and auditory techniques:
- What the character does
- How other characters react to another character
- What other characters say about another character
Actions speak louder than words. That’s the best way to reveal character. In “Fargo,” Jerry (the criminal) is being questioned by Marge (the cop) in his office at the car dealership. When Marge asks a few questions about how he keeps track of inventory at the dealership, Jerry gets all antsy and flipping a pencil between his fingers before getting angry and storming off.
That action alone tells us that Jerry is nervous and unsure of himself, which fits with the opening scene where Jerry goes to meet the two men he’s hired to kidnap his wife. In that opening scene, one man berates Jerry for being late and Jerry doesn’t do much of anything other than claim he thought he had arrived at the right time.
In any scene, define the actions in the character and you can reveal the character’s current state of mind (such as being nervous) while also reinforcing what we’ve seen before (Jerry being unsure of himself and relatively meek and mild).
Besides the actions of a character, another way to learn about a character is by how others behave around him. In “Fargo,” Jerry’s father-in-law is gruff and treats Jerry poorly. That reinforces what we’ve already seen of Jerry as a man unsure of himself.
When Jerry first meets the kidnappers he’s hired, they also treat him like he’s a jerk, which initially sets up the idea that Jerry is meek and mild and somebody anyone can push over. By showing how other characters react to one particular character, you an reveal a huge amount of characterization.
A third way to reveal character is what other characters say about another character who may not even be seen. In “Pulp Fiction,” the two hit men talk about how their boss, Marsellus Wallace, once had a man thrown off a balcony for giving his wife a foot massage.
Although we don’t actually meet Marsellus until much later, the way these two hit men talk about him already makes us leery of getting Marsellus upset. Thus we already form an idea what type of person he is just by hearing what others say about him.
So reveal character by action, reaction from other characters, and what other characters say about that person. This will help create fully formed people who populate your screenplay.